By Tom Augustine
On the list of the films clamouring for a remake or update, Nancy Meyers' fairly ill-remembered Mel Gibson rom-com vehicle What Women Want is extremely low. The story of a misogynist ad-exec suddenly blessed with the ability to read women's minds as part of some supernatural attempt to teach him the error of his ways is not quite as bad as viewers may remember – mainly by virtue of Meyers' direction, as the Michael Jordan of rom-com filmmaking – but still is undoubtedly a product (and concept) stranded in the early noughties.
Enter What Men Want, the gender-flipped update from director Adam Shankman – a prolific journeyman director whose fair-to-middling output has in the past included duds like Rock of Ages, Premonition and The Pacifier among occasional gems like the wonderful Hairspray remake and Cheaper by the Dozen. In the new version of this story, Taraji P. Henson plays Ali, a sports agent at a company completely dominated by leering, superficial and far-less-talented men that nevertheless find that, by virtue of gender and colour, have ascended far above our fiery protagonist. One day, after being administered some suspect 'freaky tea' by a loony psychic (Erykah Badu), Ali finds her mind invaded by the predictably leering, superficial thoughts of the men around her.
Initially horrified by her new powers, Ali eventually finds the benefits of being able to hear (and thus manipulate) the thoughts of the men around her, and the film gets better the looser and more open-hearted it's lead character becomes. Henson is one of the best, most underrated American actresses working today, and her endearingly physical, full-throated performance here is the films most consistently watchable asset. As in films past where she has played smaller roles, Henson often seems to be performing at such a level that the rest of the film around her pales in comparison – though it is at times a sporadically funny experience.
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The plot is largely paint by the numbers, but lacks much of the bite of its predecessor, largely because the filmmakers do not capitalise on the possibilities of its concept or sufficiently update them for a 2019 audience beyond a groan-worthy MeToo and 'I'm With Her' reference. What Men Want makes the crucial error of not only exposing us to men's thoughts but largely tooling Ali's motivations and application of her gift to the service and benefit of the men around her, rather than her own independence. Similarly, Ali does not begin the film in a position where she has a huge amount she needs to learn – she's the heroine at the beginning of the film, with her only real character flaw being an obsessive need to win – hardly enough to warrant the supposed spiritual change she appears to be desperately seeking in order to advance in her career and love life.
The film occasionally elicits laughs, but not nearly enough – for a film far raunchier and naughtier than its predecessor, it feels entirely more rote and uninspired, featuring few elements of genuine creative ambition. What joy can be wrung from What Men Want comes from its exceptional back bench of a cast – Aldis Hodge as an engagingly sweet-natured love interest whose chemistry with Henson is wonderful to behold; Pete Davidson as a deeply weird co-worker; and most notably Erykah Badu, whose role here feels imported from a far weirder, far better film – her mannerisms and reactions consistently unpredictable and alien in frequently hilarious ways. The only presence that doesn't gell, oddly, is Tracy Morgan as the domineering parent of an aspiring athlete – clearly the film has just let Morgan take his schtick and run wild, in ways that are more miss than hit. A game cast aside, there just isn't much a spark to What Men Want, nor a reason for being beyond tired studio mandate, or some fruitless attempt to rewrite history by 'reclaiming' this story from the likes of Gibson. One hopes we will start seeing more stories crafted by and for women on the big screen, rather than men's stories repurposed for women.
VERDICT: A largely uninspired rehash of Mel Gibson's infamous noughties rom-com strands a talented cast in subpar fare.
RATING: Two stars.